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November 28, 2018


As a side note, this is exactly what Kindles are good for--especially the Paperwhite version. It slips comfortably in a jacket pocket, can hold an entire library, and for narrative text without pictures or charts and where you have no inclination to flip between pages with your fingers stuck in to hold the places, the format works extremely well. Frankly, for these aging eyes, the physical format is easier to read than paper.

But back to topic: I am reading Absalom Absalom for the first time. I bounced hard off Faulkner in my youth. I now see what I missed.

Pepys' diaries, now mid 1664.
A source of delight - and amazement that anyone could lay themselves down on paper so unsparingly, whether or not he intended them ever to be read by another.

Well, it ain't Faulkner or Pepys, but I just finished the new David Sedaris, Calypso. If you already hate him it won't convert you, but like every other one of his books when I finished it I felt like I'd been cast out of heaven.

i recently read a few books on recent human evolution / anthropology. and what i learned was that writing good non-fiction is a very very rare skill, and that it's a shame that those who are good at it only stick to a few areas of study.

@cleek -- I really enjoyed Jared Diamond's books, and also David Foster Wallace's book about infinity -- Everything and More.

Wallace's book and Diamond's work have been criticized by specialists, both in writing and, in Diamond's case, to me personally by a guy I knew with a Ph.D. in archaeology. But my response is: these are engaging writers trying to make fascinating material available to the general public. If they're doing it so badly, why don't you do it for us? The answer is probably complex (including the fact that, as you say, good writers don't grow on trees.....)

I don't read a ton of non-fiction, but after some resistance and much badgering by people who enjoyed them, I did read, a few years ago, The Boys in the Boat and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Both are incredible. Both authors spent years working on the books, and both blend areas of study (history, politics, and sport in the one case; science, medicine, race relations, and a lot else in the other) with biography in ways I've rarely seen, much less done so effectively.

My wife and I are both currently knee-deep in the Mary Russell series by Laurie R King.

We're both also kind of knee-deep in various personal projects that are stressful and demanding. In good ways, and for good reasons, but nonethless...

The Russell (no relation - hah!) books are light but engaging, and delve into interesting avenues, historically and culturally.

So, just what the doctor ordered. For us, for now.


I'll read anything by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. Critters or archaic human societies, she covers the waterfront.

Likewise Steven Mithen.

Graham Robb's "The Discovery Of France", highly recommended.

@cleek -- I really enjoyed Jared Diamond's books,

i read Guns... a while back and found it fascinating. haven't read anything else he's written because the criticism of Guns made me ... gun-shy.

i also read the three Lady Trent dragon books (was that your recommendation?) very good.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Reindeer Moon and Animal Wife are simply incomparable.

I'll go look at Mithen, thanks.

i also read the three Lady Trent dragon books (was that your recommendation?)

No, that wasn't me.

I had read Diamond's The Third Chimpanzee earlier, and later on went ahead and read Collapse, which I was just citing the other day in a discussion with a friend about airborne dust. Which reminds me of another non-fiction book I enjoyed: The Secret Life of Dust. Not that recent, so maybe partly out of date, but fascinating.

Some tempting citations here -- as if my to-be-read shelf isn't groaning more than enough already. But what did I expect? ;-)

No, that wasn't me.


that was Dr S!

If nothing else, I've been inspired to read some criticism of Diamond's GG&S. And then the responses to the criticisms, which are more or less how I would respond (only I wouldn't know as much what I was talking about). Even reading people arguing about GG&S yields interesting, new ideas and facts for non-historian and non-anthropologist me.

There are 5 Lady Trent books. I read them and enjoyed them, on Dr S's recommendation. I seem only able to read certain kinds of genre fiction at the moment (the mind slips through them frictionlessly compared to "literary" fiction, and that's what I currently need to drown out the outside world). Therefore, I'm devouring series: after Lady Trent I read her Onyx Court series (not so good), and I'm now in the middle of Scalzi's Old Man's War series and Bujold's Vorkosigan series (I think I heard about almost all of these here at ObWi - another thing to be grateful for). Thank God for AbeBooks, I must be getting through an average of 5 books a week, if they were new they'd be bankrupting me. Any more suggestions gratefully received. And a recommendation from me: everyone I know adored A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.

Second Richard's sentiments above about reading on devices, although different reasons for me. I read on my phone rather than a dedicated device because I only want to lug one thing around with me. I settled on the reader software I use after trying several. This one uses my fonts, my line spacing, my paragraph formatting. There are far too many e-books out there that tempt me to find the layout designer so I can ask, "Did you study ugly and unreadable in school, or are you just naturally gifted?"

I am steadily converting my paper fiction library to epubs. Some day my wife and I will downsize to a much smaller house, and I don't want to have to give up all of those.

There are 5 Lady Trent books.

i know there are others besides the three i read. but i got the feeling that they were kind of supplemental, and not really stories. was i wrong about that?

Second the recommendation of A Gentleman in Moscow. It goes very slowly at first, so much so that I was tempted to put it aside, as one friend of mine did. Another friend told me to stick with it, and I'm glad I did.

The book goes onto a list I'm keeping of novels that have a certain motif at the end involving a child (perhaps grown, it doesn't matter) and a parent figure, and loss or separation or disconnection. These are the list entries so far:

Possession, by A. S. Byatt
Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and
The Bone Clocks, both also Mitchell
The One-in-a-Million Boy, by Monica Wood
A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles

In the improbable case that anyone has read all of this rather peculiar assortment, I wonder if you know what I'm talking about, and whether it carries a similar force for you as it does for me. David Mitchell seems to keep coming back to it -- so much so that I've been tempted to write to him about it, because I keep rereading his books, in part to keep coming back to the endings.

I'll leave it at that -- no spoilers for those of you haven't read these titles, but might.

Currently reading Thant Myint-U, The River of Lost Footsteps: A personal history of Burma, which I apparently acquired (2d hand) some time ago and which just popped up on my shelf when I was browsing. I studied and taught Southeast Asian history (including Burmese) for many years, so I know the broad outlines, but Thant writes well and - most importantly - writes from a Burmese perspective, rather than the Western (British) viewpoint that tends to dominate historiography. He's a grandson of U Thant, and refers to anecdotes from his family's past (the last 130 years or so, any way), which helps.

Prior to that, Diamond's Guns, etc. and before that what I best remember is Kipling The Complete Stalky & Co., which includes not just the stories in the original S & C - well-known and much loved from my youth - but others written in the same period about the same characters and milieu. IMHO, whoever selected the original S & C did a good job, in that none of those stories omitted are quite up to those included. But still an astonishing quasi-memoir of a time, place, and world view long, and understandably, forgotten.

I thought when I was going into the hospital I would read a lot, but what I hadn't counted on - then or during the long weeks (so far) of recovery - was just how debilitating it all is, so that when one is actually awake it seems like too much effort to concentrate on anything.

Or maybe old age is just catching up with me.

As for modalities, I own a "Nook" but don't like it and rarely deploy it, but my wife (who is bed-ridden much of the time) absolutely loves hers and reads extensively in bed, so as a couple we come down firmly on the fence.

dr ngo, nice to see your handle. It sounds like your recovery is progressing but maybe not as fast as you'd like?

The Burma book sounds interesting -- it's a part of the world I know very little about, all the more reason to check it out.

I'm with you on the Nook. Metaphorically speaking, they’ll have to pry a book out of my cold dead hands when I expire. It will probably be an ancient, bedraggled paperback (with the covers falling off and my notes scribbled in the margins) – which I’ll have been rereading for the umpteenth time – and which statistically speaking will most likely be The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, or The Return of the King, "First Ballantine Books Edition: October 1965. Sixty-second Printing: May 1978." This set doesn't have the original Ballantine American covers, but I've still got at least one of those in a box in the attic.

Clearly it's bedtime, even for me.

If you want semi-light fantasy try the Bear and the Nightingale. It has a dark faerie Russian slant that is interesting.

cleek, the five "proper" Lady Trent books are: A Natural History of Dragons, The Tropic of Serpents, The Voyage of the Basilisk, In the Labyrinth of Drakes and Within the Sanctuary of Wings. There is a supplementary thing (which I haven't read) called From the Editorial Page of the Falchester Weekly Review, and there is an Omnibus of all five of the main books called The Memoirs of Lady Trent.

A Gentleman in Moscow: this is an idiosyncratic recommendation, but one that might strike a spark with some - it was the first thing that gave me moments of happiness in a very dark time, and I read and re-read bits of it to prolong those moments as much as possible.

Janie, I haven't read any of the rest of your list because they belong to the long period when I couldn't read fiction, but you should write to him if you want to: it was a reader writing to Martin Amis about the recurring theme of a lost child in his fiction (a theme of which he was completely unaware) that was particularly fascinating when he found out about the existence of a grown-up daughter of whom he was unaware, now a beloved member of his extended family.

Sebastian: thank you for the recommendation, I'll check it out.

Apart from that, I'm with Janie about books needing to be pried from my cold, dead hands. I'll use the Kindle when I have to (travelling etc), but nothing compares to the feeling of a book in the hand.

I just tried to purchase A Gentleman in Moscow, inly to realise I had already done so on my Kindle, and forgotten that it lay there, unread.

Which rather indicates that I too prefer physical books. (Though the Kindle is exceptionally useful for travel, and not disturbing my wife when reading late at night...)

I was just coming in to recommend A Gentleman in Moscow. I wasn't very fond of the last chapter, but the rest of it was an absolute delight. On a completely different track, James Alan Gardner's All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault, about a quartet of young women who accidentally acquire superpowers (in a world where there are quite a few superpeople), is lightweight but amusing (and the sequel has just come out). On the nonfiction front, I'm finishing up David Reich's Who We Are and How We Got Here, a fascinating account of recent discoveries about prehistoric population movements, as revealed by full-genome DNA studies.

Sometimes, social science research comes up with fun stuff.

I hasten to note the correlation is not necessarily causation. But fun nonetheless.

Jim Parish: sometimes lightweight but amusing is just what the doctor ordered. Thanks!

I join the crowd recommending A Gentleman in Moscow.

Am currently reading The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan. It is a history of the world that moves the focus from the Mediterranean and Europe eastward to Iran, Central Asia, etc.

A great perspective, and well-written, but I have one major criticism - it contains almost no maps. To my mind a book that deals with trade routes, the rise and fall of great cities and empires, and so on, ought to be replete with maps. Here it almost seems as if there was a conscious decision not to include them. Annoying.

I read half of the The Silk Roads and found it very interesting, both scholarly (I don't like pop-sci) and well written (didn't finish for reasons unrelated).

If you're interested in Iran I can recommend:

"Empire of the Mind" by Michael Axworthy

and if you're really interested, this is supposed to be very good:

"Iran - A Modern History" by Abbas Amanat


I'm currently reading:

"The Lies That Bind - Rethinking Identity"
by Kwame Anthony Appiah, which is pretty good

Simon Winchester's The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World. Starting with the cylinders that made Watt's steam engines practical, reproducibly machined to about 2.5 millimeters, to contemporary integrated circuits with features a few millionths of a millimeter in size.

I will try the Lady Grant series.

I read for escapism so no Faulkner, thank you.

I read and re-read and re-re-read Ben Aaronovitch's Peter Grant books because I wish London was really like that.

I read and re-read the Raven Cycle because I wish highschool had been like that.

I also read Stienhauer's spy books when I am in a less escapist mood.

So that'sme right now.

I have not been doing much new reading because I have been writing.

My latest novel The Eclipse Dancer will be out in about a week.

I wrote it as a way to process my feelings of rage and despair over the death of nature. It is a story on two levels: an old woman who after years of estrangement goes back to here childhood home to care for her dying mother and a thirteen year old who discovers that her father was a nature spirit in the Objibwe tradition--a wild hare.

I also published a book called Limbo which is a fantasy about the afterlife. BookLife (Publisher's Weekly) said in their review that it is about the role of kindness in spirituality. I am very pleased by that--they hit the nail on the head! The characters are trapped in ghost form in a tiny village where they have nothing to do but interact with each other--and they are a collection of people who would not have known or liked each other in life. Mostly they spend their time on village politics while playing poker until the main character, Alyse, shakes things up by throwing a neighborhood block party.

All proceeds are donated to animal rescues.

Thank you for letting me brag!

BTW I do correct my comma and typo errors before I publish. Well, maybe not one hundred percent on the commas.

Kipling's Stalky & Co is also near the top of my list of favorite books.

Currently reading The Anatomy of the Zulu Army by Ian Knight.

Although I doubt that I will ever formally publish it, I am currently doing illustrations for my growing collection of antiquity parodies (the latest text is the blind seer Teiresias telling his story set to the tune of The Lumberjack Song, and I am considering writing a satyr play that is a sequel to Euripides' Cyclops).

Congratulations, Laura.

Thanks! Harmut, your project sounds fascinating!

While there's still a book-related thread going, I just wanted to mention the "sequels" to the Lord Peter Wimsey books, written by Jill Paton Walsh. I don't normally read crime stuff, but the Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane books were satisfying on so many levels, and clearly an important influence on Dunnett's Lymond books, so that I made an exception in their case. And the posthumous continuation of the story (alone among such experiments in my experience) is really very successful. On the offchance there are any other Wimsey/Vane fans, or indeed others keen to blot out the real world, I recommend.

I'm a Wimsey fan. Sayers experimented with different ideas; some worked better than others. Five Red Herrings for example, is brilliantly constructed, but you'd have to be a dedicated reader to follow the railway timetables at the heart of the mystery. Jill Paton Walsh reproduces Sayers' most successful style, so it feels a bit formulaic, but it works well.

On Iran: I recommend Amin Maalouf's Samarkand, mostly about a fictionalised Omar Khayyam.

If you're looking for non-fiction, Maalouf's The Crusades through Arab Eyes offers a perspective which changed my understanding of Arab thinking about the West.

the posthumous continuation of the story (alone among such experiments in my experience) is really very successful.

One other example: the continuation of the Oz books by L. Frank Baum's daughter.

There's also Anne Hillerman's continuation of Tony Hillerman's Navajo series -- she's his daughter. The books are okay, even if a bit formulaic (as Pro Bono said about Jill Paton Walsh's Wimsey/Vane books, which I will look into, being a great fan of Winsey/Vane). She has written four of them, and this latest one was so scattered that I'm not that eager for another.

russell: My wife and I are both currently knee-deep in the Mary Russell series by Laurie R King.

There have been a lot of Sherlock Holmes take-offs over the years, and I haven't paid systematic attention. But this is the only sustained series that I know about. I enjoyed the first few but then felt that they got very scattered, as if she was just mailing it in. It could just be my impatience...I eventually reached the same point with Martha Grimes' Richard Jury books (literally threw one of them across the room when she killed off one of the main figures in the book -- a child, to boot -- at the very end; never read another of hers after that). (Similarly with Elizabeth George, but never mind.)

I continue to enjoy mystery/crime series by these authors:

Louise Penny -- you can learn about Quebec, too!

Deborah Crombie -- a Texan whose books are set in England -- more great local color

Elly Griffiths -- the Ruth Galloway novels, Ruth being a (sometimes forensic) archaeologist in Norfolk

Jacqueline Winspear -- Maisie Dobbs stories

The first Maisie Dobbs books are set in the WWI era -- made me think about that time period in a much more vivid way (not happily, but still). Charles Todd's books similarly as to WWI -- Charles Todd is a mother-daughter team. I don't like those as well but continue to read them now and then.

Implied in the above is my overwhelming preference for mysteries set in Great Britain. Hillerman's are a notable exception...

Outside the mystery genre, we can throw in the apparently endless LOTR-related books published by Tolkien's son. (Or grandson? I don't actually know.) I haven't read them...too much of a purist, I guess. But someone near and dear to me has gotten into them, so maybe I'll have a go one of these days. I wouldn't mind a closer look at story of the Fall of Gondolin, just for instance.

I've had a hard time reading as much as I used to since going through the Ph.D. in lit. My reading has slowed down considerably. (That, and my eyes are not as good anymore - combination of exam lists and being 50.) Took a few years to get back the knack of reading for pleasure and not as a form of self-defense to keep the dissertation anxiety at bay.

I've been learning Swedish on Duolingo, so I just finished reading the Swedish edition of Denise Mina's graphic novel adaptation of Män Som Hatar Kvinnor a.k.a. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Graphic novels seem to have escaped being a trigger for dissertation trauma. Have also read all of the Saga collections to-date and volumes 1 and 2 of Stand Still, Stay Silent. Interesting (and gorgeous) post-apocalyptic Trans-Nordic fantasy webcomic.

Think Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Stories are next on my reading list, or maybe Richard Morgan's Thin Air. Also expect to read my wife's current work-in-progress after she gets through her agent revisions. Will have time to do that while she is getting through the editor revisions for her forthcoming novel (out in October or November from Daw).

I should also take time to recommend Planetside by Michael Mammay. It's military SF with a mystery slant.

Thanks, Pro Bono - I hadn't heard of Maalouf before and his work sounds very interesting.

Charles Todd is a mother-daughter team

Sorry, it's a mother-son team.

~Freudian slip of a sort. ;-)

My daughter is a writer and I'm her editor. We have aspirations of writing mysteries together, but there's not a prayer of that happening as long as my head is buried in my paid work. We'll see if I have any functioning brain cells left when I retire.

reading for pleasure and not as a form of self-defense to keep [the dissertation anxiety] at bay

Well put, Nous. Reading as a form of self-defence to keep [supply your own avoidance-object]is an exact description.

reading for pleasure and not as a form of self-defense to keep [the dissertation anxiety] at bay

Sorry, should have read:

Well put, Nous. Reading as a form of self-defence to keep [supply your own avoidance-object] at bay is an exact description.

We'll see if I have any functioning brain cells left when I retire.

My experience is that, while the day of may be problematic, a little while later you discover that there are lots of brain cells which have merely been crowded out. Now that work cells aren't hogging all the goodies, cells to do other stuff (e.g. write) arise from their enforced sabbatical, ready to roll.

Good luck!

Thanks, wj. That sounds hopeful!!

Reading as self-defense in grad school was not, unfortunately, a way to avoid dissertation. It was several years of guilt every time I read something that was not dissertation related - just as every weekend spent doing something with family or friends was time not spent on trying to figure out how to get unstuck from whatever difficulty was standing between me and word count was a source of guilt. Dissertation-related reading was the only sort of reading that did not provoke guilt and which also kept me from feeling guilt over the lack of word count. So the research reading proliferated and the pleasure reading dwindled to a guilty trickle.

I'm not the only one. Most of the lit grads I know went through this.

That was 2007 to 2011. Getting over that feeling was 2012-2014. Now I'm back to ordinary reading-as-avoidance reading, and not feeling any guilt.

Graduate School Can Have Terrible Effects on People's Mental Health: Ph.D. candidates suffer from anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation at astonishingly high rates.

Reading as a form of self-defence to keep [supply your own avoidance-object] at bay ...

Life ? (Certainly a good deal of my childhood and adolescence...)

On another topic, sang this at an early carol service this weekend (I know it’s not a carol):

The Agee poem:

Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.
The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth.
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand'ring far
Of shadows on the stars.

Is he read these days ?
I was mildly intrigued by the story of his posthumous Pulitzer, and wondered if anyone thought the autobiography worth the time ?

I just finished

Jan-Werner Mueller: "What is Populism?"

Very lucid - and relevant in these times.


Müller argues that at populism's core is a rejection of pluralism. Populists will always claim that they and they alone represent the people and their true interests....

An argument I'm happy to accept.
Might have to read it.

Back to a certain amount of frivolity, combined with loony obsessiveness, concerning the Wimsey/Vane "sequels" by Jill Paton Walsh. FWIW, and I do know that for most people (apart from linguists who enjoy tracking the evolution of language) such issues are beneath notice, I have now finished them and although I still recommend them I was startled in the last one by two strange solecisms which Dorothy Sayers would never have perpetrated, and which had me checking Paton Walsh's nationality. She refers to people going to the Ritz and having "high tea", then describes a meal which most English people now and all English people then would have called "afternoon tea", or just "tea". This is a strange new usage I first noticed in the US about 15-20 years ago, and worked out was because the multi-course nature of a classic English afternoon tea, particularly in grand hotels, seemed to Americans to demand a grander name than tea or afternoon tea. High tea, on the other hand, as all English people used to know, is an altogether different meal often experienced on Sunday evenings after a large traditional Sunday lunch. High tea is to afternoon tea and supper as brunch is to breakfast and lunch: in other words it is rather informal, and includes some elements of tea (bread and butter, cake) and some of supper (say cold meat or sausages and salad or baked potatoes).

The other solecism is that one of the characters calls their son "son" on several occasions, an extremely unusual usage in England in the class of people involved.

As I say, these are trivial examples, but the fact that they are jarring vividly illustrates how well in all other respects Jill Paton Walsh (who is English, and may have put these usages in - if they were intentional - for the sake of American readers) has inhabited Sayers's world.

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